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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Top Chef: "History Never Repeats"

Illustration for article titled Top Chef: "History Never Repeats"
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In Bravo's wildest dreams, season eight of Top Chef stands to realize some of the matches fans have been arguing about for years in their Top Chef fantasy leagues. Would Hosea have won if he'd been cast in any other season? Will there ever be another top three as good as the Voltaggio-Kevin trifecta? What if Angelo hadn't gotten sick or if the walk-in hadn't contained frozen scallops? (OK, so maybe in this little section of the Internet, these aren't pretend topics of conversation.)

Billed as both a shot at redemption for individual chefs and a battle to settle which season was strongest, season eight brings back the "all-star" contestants from previous seasons. This setup is amazing on paper. It could bring back eliminated favorites, stoke former rivalries, and allow us to compare chefs across seasons. Plus, it would solve another common complaint: that we spend the first eight or nine weeks of the show waiting for the evidently more mediocre chefs to pack their knives and go. Within the first few weeks, the strongest competitors have emerged, and while we wait for the others to fail, we hope for challenges that are actually challenging. With a proven set of chefs, these first weeks could be interesting. Tonight's editing tried to convince us this was the case: It's a cast of all-stars! And you know what all-stars are—they're the top of the top, the best of the best! They don't call us all-stars for nothing! But really, it's a bit more of a mixed bag. Mike Isabella was memorably jerky, for example, but never won a challenge during season six. I'm hoping, though, that the casting folks have thought this through; Carla shockingly made it to the finals in season five, but then again, so did Hosea.

It's with these reservations—that the batch was selected for drama over skill—that I tuned in tonight to sub for Scott Tobias. The first quickfire challenge poked at any inter-season rivalry that exists, throwing the contestants into teams by season and asking them to make a dish that represented the city in which they competed. With only 25 minutes, the teams aimed mostly for the obvious. The Chicago folks chose a hot dog, New York cooked apples, and DC required something with crabs. Chicago took the win for its pork-and-black-pepper sausage with mustard ice cream, whipped up by professor Richard Blais and his giant tank of liquid nitrogen.

Previewing the elimination challenge, the teaser before the commercial break showed all of the chefs lifting silver domes and reacting, in typical Top Chef style. I imagined the usual fodder: some canned food, a weird protein, maybe everyone just has to cook with a campfire stove. I'll give it to the producers here, though: This elimination challenge was downright brilliant. The chefs uncovered the ingredients that first got them eliminated. They were asked to recreate their losing dishes, only this time, preferably, not to suck at it. Is this a good challenge because it's so mean? Maybe. The producers are seriously screwing with the chefs, and it absolutely delighted me. Narratively, it's a great way to remind us who these chefs are and whether or not we cared about seeing them go home. And we realize there's another layer at play: Not everyone went home on a finale-level challenge. Poor Mike had to cook a vegetarian meal again, and Steve was at a serious disadvantage because he didn't even play a serious role in cooking that dish. He spent his final episode managing the front of the house. Dale's losing dish was once ridiculed by guest judge Anthony Bourdain, who happens to be the fourth judge this season.  For some chefs, these dishes were serious missteps; for others, it was tweaking this or that.

To stoke the rivalry even further, a TV was placed in the kitchen so that the serving chefs could hear the commentary on their food. Elia, who famously shaved her head during season two when Top Chef was more similar to the Real World, chose to skip the screening, and with good reason. She'd served her fish raw and was later eliminated after awkwardly blurting out "don't eliminate me" at judge's table. She admitted to not looking at or trying the fish before sending it out. There was really no way to recover from there. Our other bottom two didn't fare much better: Steve served a monochromatic, texturally challenged plate of cafeteria food, and Fabio sent out something that resembled vomit covered with basil leaves, with some nice pasta.

Spike, Jamie, and Angelo landed on top, with Richard eliminated for plating after time was called. (Did he really not hear them?) Spike managed to mask his frozen scallops by burying them completely, Jamie improved on some previously tasteless celery, and Angelo sacrificed some watermelon tea that had been dear to him. At this early stage, the food prep and presentation isn't afforded a ton of screen time, but most of our cheftestants seem to be right where we left them, and I, for one, have signed on for the season. Or at least added it to my TiVo to-do list.   

Stray observations:

  • Glad to see Tre again, who's been training. More of this, please: "Steve's a great front of the house guy. He's a great dresser, but I don't think he came out of the trenches. I think he just came out of … Macy's Day Parade or something."
  • Same goes for Fabio, about bunk beds: "I squash my balls on season five, and that's not going to happen."
  • "Elia, please pack your knives and go." "Okay."
  • Scott Tobias will take return soon. Thanks for letting me fill in.